Posts Tagged ‘M R James’

A New Year resolution for September

It doesn’t have to be New Year to make a resolution, does it? After all, every day is the start of a new year, and there’s no particular reason why the particular date January 1st should be fetishised in this manner. At any rate, I have formed a New Year resolution that I mean to stick to.

But no – this is not where I should be starting. It is always difficult finding a suitable starting point for a post – a way in, as it were: pick the wrong starting point, and you find yourself reaching a dead end after only a few sentences; but pick the right one, and the whole thing flows like billy-o. And that’s the blooper I made above: I started at the wrong point, and ground to an abrupt halt after only a couple of sentences. And it isn’t even where I’d meant to start. I’d meant to start with finding in a second-hand bookshop a couple of childhood favourites, long out of print, and with the veritable flood of memories these books brought back.

These are the beauties:

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It is hard to describe the sheer joy I felt on finding these books. One was a bit water-damaged, but no matter: I do not expect second-hand books to be in pristine condition anyway, and, unless it is so filthy that one cannot bear even to touch it, a few signs of age and of wear rather add to the charm of the thing.

I was eleven when I first encountered these books. It was in the school library. We had moved to Bishopbriggs (just outside Glasgow) earlier in the year, and, after summer, I found myself a pupil in Bishopbriggs High School. And I made around that time two major literary discoveries: in the children’s section of Bishopbriggs public library, I discovered The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles; and in the school library, I discovered creepy ghost stories, through these two estimable anthologies edited by Alan C. Jenkins – Ghosts! and Thin Air. Till then, my favourite reading was mainly adventure stories and swashbucklers, but my new discoveries now drove everything else out to the fringes.

Who knows how many hours I spent in my room reading and re-reading these books, while my parents happily thought I was reading some improving literature, or doing my homework like the model schoolboy they imagined me to be. Or how many hours I spent reading those ghost stories in bed last thing at night, and scaring myself silly. Then I would switch off the light, and lie awake in bed in the dark, terrified of every accidental creak of the floorboards, every ominous gurgle in the water pipes.

On the Sherlock Holmes front, having exhausted what Bishopbriggs Public Library had to offer, I requested from the library the other three Sherlock Holmes novels, and the other forty-four short stories – all of which I gobbled up faster than you could say “Have you done your homework yet?” And on the ghost story front, I went from strength to strength, greedily lapping up every anthology I could get my hands on. And thus, I came to know, amongst others, the great M. R. James, the undisputed master of the genre. Thin Air contained the M. R. James story “The Treasure of Abbott Thomas”, while a book my parents had on their shelves – a Reader’s Digest anthology called Great British Short Stories – contained “The Mezzotint”. I am not sure now which one I read first, but these two stories were my introduction to a writer who has remained a firm favourite over the decades, and whose works are now a permanent fixture on my bedside table.

(That Reader’s Digest anthology contained some other fine ghost stories also – “Running Wolf” by Algernon Blackwood, “The Ghost” by Richard Hughes, the ubiquitous “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs, and the deeply unsettling “August Heat” by W. F. Harvey.)

Now, as regular visitors to this blog may have noticed, the frequency of my postings has fallen dramatically since my illness late last year; and, even given this reduced number of posts, those that are book-related have really become quite sparse. This is because I am not reading anywhere near as much as I used to. (And even before, I was never the fastest of readers.) I usually read on the commuter train, and at bedtime, but nowadays, when I take the commuter train back home at the end of the day, I am usually too tired to read; and at bedtime, all I can think of is sleep. Not even the accidental creaking of the floorboards nor the ominous gargling of the water pipes can keep me awake. I recently finished re-reading Middlemarch: it’s a fairly long book, I know, but it is nonetheless frankly embarrassing to think how long it took me to get through it. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, and not that I didn’t want to read it a bit faster, but the flesh proved weaker than the spirit, unrealistically willing as ever, had anticipated.

But, since finding these two fondly remembered ghost story anthologies, I have again taken up reading in bed, last thing at night. Next to a magic time machine that could transport me back some forty-five years, this is really the next best thing. (Although I have to imagine these days the somewhat disapproving looks of my parents, who did not deem such stories sufficiently improving, or sufficiently wholesome, for young impressionable minds.) And these stories have resurrected once again the joy of reading. And, especially, the joy of reading creepy ghost stories.

And this is where I came in. I made a resolution: now that the nights are beginning visibly to draw in, I shall, between now and spring next year (say, the end of March or so), read a ghost story every night*. Quite apart from these two recently purchased volumes, I have a great many collections of ghost stories, so I don’t think there’s much danger of my running out. And every night, I am going to scare myself silly, just as I used to do all those years ago.

*Except those nights when I am too tired or too drunk.

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My Ideal Bookshelf

It’s nearly Christmas. Let’s indulge ourselves a bit.

There is a book, and, inevitably, a website, called “My Ideal Bookshelf”. In this book, various celebrities are asked to list up to twelve books that are particularly important to them for various reasons. Now, as I like to think I am something of a celebrity myself, I was a bit miffed at not being asked to contribute to this. Sure, we lesser mortals are invited to contribute our ideal bookshelves to the website mentioned above, but I am loftily ignoring this: it’s celebrity or nothing for me!

Fair enough, nothing it is…

If you are thinking that this is an excuse for yet another dreary list, you’d be perfectly correct. But as I say, it’s nearly Christmas. Let’s indulge ourselves a bit!

Here’s my ideal bookshelf:

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The reasoning behind the choices of most of the titles is self-explanatory. First of all – going from left to right – comes the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I was eleven when my parents took me to see King Lear at the Edinburgh Festival: Timothy West, then only in his 40s, played Lear on the bare stage of the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. Obviously, at that age, I took in but a fraction of it, but I was so excited by what I had seen, that I remember I could not get to sleep that night. That Christmas, I asked my parents for the Complete Works. There are at least a dozen or so of these plays that remain a constant presence in my mind. To celebrate – if “celebrate” is indeed the word I am looking for – my 50th year, I read through all these plays, in the order (as far as can be ascertained) in which they had been written. And I try to read at least one play each month. Life without these works would be unimaginable.

Then comes Rabindranath Tagore. Someone asked me once whether, given my obviously Bengali name, I knew the works of Tagore. Some of it, I replied: he wrote prolifically for decades, and I certainly haven’t ploughed through it all. Did I like his work? Well, I replied, as an educated Bengali, I don’t really have an option. His songs were probably the first music I ever heard; that extravagantly bearded visage was as familiar to me in my earliest childhood years as were pictures of my own family. Later in life, it did, I admit, come as a surprise to discover that, despite all the idolatry – which for many years put me off – his works actually are rather good. Extraordinarily good, indeed. Despite translations (which I am not qualified to judge, as they are not intended for me), the true extent of his literary greatness will be accessible only to native speakers. And for those native speakers who have come under his spell (and it is hard not to), a volume of Tagore’s poems is virtually a mandatory choice on the Ideal Bookshelf. But which volume? Even restricting oneself to poetry, his vast output cannot be contained in a single volume. After much thought, I chose Geetbitan, a collection of all his song lyrics. Literally thousands of them, covering just about every shade and nuance of human feeling imaginable. Tagore was among the greatest of songwriters (he composed the melodies as well as writing the words), and even when you don’t have the tune running round your head when reading them, these exquisite lyrics stand up perfectly well as poetry. There aren’t many song lyrics that do that.

Then comes Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I won’t write about here as there is already a fairly long and recent series of posts in this blog about this extraordinary novel. And speaking of extraordinary novels, there’s also Dickens’ Bleak House: I won’t write about this either, as I have done so only quite recently. Tolstoy and Dickens are the two novelists whose works mean most to me personally.

Next, I have chosen the Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James. I have always wondered why it is I so dislike fantasy literature, find myself bored by science fiction, and yet enjoy the unreality of a creepy ghost story. Not any type of ghost story, though: the ones I like are the ones in which the solidity of the real world is very strongly projected, so that that the intrusion of the irrational, when it appears, is transgressive. The sort of story, indeed, of which M. R. James was the master. Why do I enjoy these stories so much? Well, let’s not go too deeply into self-psychoanalysis: that sort of thing is bound to be a load of simplistic tripe anyway. But the Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James remains a constantly on my bedside table.

Piled on top of these books in my picture are six paperback volumes of the major plays of Ibsen, in the translations by Michael Meyer. Yes, I know, it’s cheating: they’re six volumes. But each volume is so indispensible that I couldn’t leave any of them out. And in any case, these volumes could easily be stitched up together into a single large volume.

I came to Ibsen in my twenties, and was fascinated by the strange world he created. He is known primarily as a “social dramatist” – i.e. as a dramatist who dealt mainly with social issues. That is indeed how I used to think of him myself. But reading his plays, I found myself transported into the deepest and most mysterious regions of the mind itself: worlds opened up that were new to me, and which fascinated me. I still probably don’t understand what many of them are about, but, perhaps for that very reason, they continue to fascinate.

Then come two more novels – Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (which I read again some two years ago, and on which I have written a series of posts on this blog) and Joyce’s Ulysses. The latter is widely considered a sort of High Altar of Modernism, and has a reputation of being excessively difficult: that’s rather unfortunate, since, quite apart from anything else, it’s about as fun as any book I have read. I can still dip into it and read passages purely for enjoyment. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, I have rather a difficult relationship with. I first encountered his works as a teenager, and was overwhelmed: the impact these novels had on me was almost visceral. But as I became older, doubts started to creep in: Are these novels not merely hysterical? Aren’t they unstructured, rambling, undisciplined? Was not my love of these novels merely a consequence of my teenage immaturity? And yet … and yet, scenes and themes and characters and images from these novels remained seared into my mind when other novels, apparently much better-written, had vanished without much trace. These novels, in other words, left behind the strongest of aftertastes. So I started, rather guiltily I suppose, to re-enter Dostoyevsky’s world. And I realised that these novels have to be taken on their own terms, and that there is no other novel that is even remotely comparable. Yes, I still frequently find myself wondering what the hell certain passages are about; I still find myself shaking my head at other times and thinking this won’t do. But that excitement I had experienced as a teenager remains. And I’m not sure why,

I suppose if I love Tolstoy because his vision of the world I find enriching; if I like Dickens because I love entering into that idiosyncratic fictional world of his; then I love Dostoyevsky because I enjoy having a fight with him. And I have had some good fights with him, and have come away from them bloodied but invigorated. Dostoyevsky’s novels are exploratory rather than declamatory, and, as with the plays of Ibsen, they explore regions that, had it not been for these works, would have been completely closed to me.

Now, the Sherlock Holmes stories. In the picture above, these appear in a lavish three-volume set (a birthday present from my wife on my 50th birthday); but since they can also be found contained in a single volume, I’m claiming this as one choice. I still have vivid memories of checking out The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from Bishopbriggs Public Library when I was about 12 or so, and it was love at first sight; and this love hasn’t flagged since. These stories have been a constant companion to me for many, many years now, and, as with the ghost stories of M. R. James, have become the best of old friends, and lifelong companions. I tried in this post to explain why I love these stories, but I think I gave up after a while: there are certain things that resist explanation.

I finish with two volumes of poetry – by Yeats, and by Wordsworth – sandwiching Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It strikes me writing this post that a great many of the books that mean most to me reach back into my late childhood, and my teenage years: I suppose those are the years during which my literary taste was formed. And I certainly remember watching on television, aged twelve, the National Theatre production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night featuring Laurence Olivier in one of his legendary roles. I was mesmerised. That play has a hold on me still that I cannot explain: even other plays by Eugene O’Neill don’t resonate with me the way this one does. Once again, I am not sure I understand why.

And, of course, I want some poetry on by ideal shelf. I already have the song lyrics of Tagore, and the plays and poems of Shakespeare; add to these Wordsworth and Yeats, and I think that would keep me happy. As I explained in an earlier post, I like Wordsworth’s tone of voice – civilised and eloquent, the voice of someone conversing with me rather than of someone declaiming to me. But with that conversational tone, he can depict emotions and states of mind that seem transcendent, and contain intimations of immortality. Yes, we all know that we wrote much, especially in his advanced years, that was mediocre and worse; but we should judge each writer by their best, and the best of Wordworth – “Tintern Abbey”, “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”, “The Solitary Reaper”, the 1805 text of The Prelude, some of the finest sonnets since Shakespeare, etc. etc. – would quite easily fill a good-sized volume. And despite their apparent plainness of diction, they affect me more than I think I can explain.

I do not write much about poetry on this blog, and that is mainly because I am not sure how to write about it. Poetry tends to affect me like music: I know what it makes me feel, but am not sure why. I suppose the only way to write about poetry is to provide close analysis of the rhythms, the sounds, the imagery, etc. – but there are many who can do that sort of thing far better than I possibly could. I did try to write about some poems by Yeats once on this blog, but I’ll not provide a link to it: it wasn’t, shall we say, among my best posts on here. So I will restrict myself here to giving some rough impressions of what Yeats’ poetry makes me feel. There’s the early stuff, of course – the “Celtic twilight” poem: these are products of the fag-end of Romanticism, with their alluring sensuality and the infectious folk rhythms. But even here, those rhythms aren’t always what one would expect from folk poetry: they are considerably knottier; and the themes became increasingly complex and ambiguous, the mythology more arcane. And it is fascinating tracing the development of Yeats’ poetic style as it moves almost seamlessly from a youthful Romanticism into a personal and very passionate form of modernism. For the older Yeats got, the more passionate he became. “Give me an old man’s frenzy,” he says at one point; and there is indeed a sort of frenzy in his poetry, a passionate striving and longing for he knows not what. Perhaps he remained a Romantic after all.

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Well, that’s it folks – that’s my pre-Christmas indulgence done with. Now, the real indulgence starts: I already have bottles of malt whisky and Armagnac lined up for a most convivial and alcoholic festive season, and am looking forward to two idyllic weeks with the family.

And with my books, of course!

Ghost stories for dark winter nights

There’s a time and a place for reading a ghost story. You can’t, for instance, read a ghost story on a crowded commuter train. Nor can you read it on a sunny afternoon in the garden . No – a ghost story should be read late at night, in the light of a solitary lamp that is casting weird shadows around the room. One may be sitting comfortably in a favourite armchair; or one may be in bed, shortly before putting out the bedside lamp and submitting to the dark. The story is all the more effective if there is a howling wind outside, making eldritch sounds at the window-pane; or, better still, if there is a deathly, still, silence – a silence that one dreads being broken.

Recently, Tom in Wuthering Expectations – not, I believe, a diehard aficionado of the genre – has posted nonetheless very sympathetic accounts of some classic ghost stories. He identified different types of ghost stories, and quite rightly disagreed with my unargued assertion that the purpose of ghost stories is to evoke fear: a ghost story, he argued, could serve any number of functions. This is certainly true enough: but it’s the ones that evoke fear that I love the best. So, before I go on to prescribe, as I fully intend to do, what does and what doesn’t make for a good ghost story – or, at least, what makes for my kind of ghost story – I suppose I should describe the kind of ghost story I am talking about.

I am not really interested in ghost stories that are comic, or satirical: comedy may act as relief to lower the tension at appropriate moments, but I remain to be convinced that one may laugh and be frightened at the same time. Neither am I interested in ghost stories that seek to evoke disgust rather than fear – a common failing, I find, with much of modern horror. I like the creepy type of story – the type that evokes in me a sense of supernatural dread. It may be said, with some justification, that it’s a comfortable type of dread: it is easy to feel fear when safely ensconced in a nice, warm bed, especially when that fear is caused by beings one knows to be imaginary. That’s true enough. But, as I was reminded during a recent visit to Hermitage Castle, irrational fear, inexplicable dread, unreasoned terror, are all too real, even if ghosts and vampires aren’t. One may be perfectly rational and not believe in the supernatural, and yet find certain places to be, for want of a better word, spooky, and prefer not to be there after dark. Why we should feel this way, I do not know: but the finest ghost stories – or, to be more precise, the finest ghost stories of the type I like – do, I think, evoke something of just this sort of fear – a fear all the more unnerving because its object remains so shadowy and vague. And that is important: as soon as the objects of fear acquires too distinct a solidity, the fear that its vagueness had occasioned naturally dissipates.

This type of ghost story is, I think, a very conservative genre: its effectiveness usually comes from doing established things well, rather than from innovation. But since, as I have been told, and as I tend to agree, my cultural tastes are conservative anyway, I don’t have a problem with that. The master of the genre is, for me and for many others, M. R. James. What James understood so well is that the irrational is frightening for the very reason that it is irrational: it is precisely because the irrational irrupts into a solid and rational world that it terrifies. This is why I have never enjoyed the short stories of Poe very much: the framework of his stories is so far removed from the everyday, and the pitch is so hysterical to begin with, that when the irrational or the macabre does emerge, it is neither surprising nor incongruous.

And I think this is also why I tend not to enjoy stories in which some sort of rationale is provided for the haunting; or when some alternative plane of existence, perfectly in accordance with the laws of nature were we to be fully acquainted with these laws, is hypothesised to explain the apparition. I am happy to suspend my normal rational frame of mind when the irrational is depicted as irrational, but when that irrational is rationalised by an alternative type of reasoning, I find myself getting bored. I have read far too many ghost stories that have been spoiled by over-explaining: what matters is the projection of a sense of terror, and presentation of some parallel fantasy world that explains the apparently inexplicable merely diminishes that sense of terror.

Similarly with over-plotting: it is enough to know that phantoms haunt; we do not generally need to know why they haunt. There is nothing objectionable in suggesting some reason, but, once again, I have read far too many ghost stories that have been spoiled by too great an emphasis on this aspect: mere mechanics of the plot are rarely interesting, and the best ghost stories – once again, of the type I like – do not give us more of this than is absolutely necessary.

M. R. James knew exactly how to do it. In story after story, he got it just right – neither complete bafflement, nor too much explanation that would detract from the terror; the terror glimpsed, as he put it, “in the corner of the retina”; and just the right depiction of solidity to make the supernatural appear incongruous, and hence, shocking. After all, we all expect unspeakable horrors in a Gothic dungeon, but when you are in your own room and you slip your hand under the pillow to retrieve your watch, and … No, sorry, I’d better stop here: I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who has not yet read “Casting the Runes”.

As has often been remarked, the late Victorian and the Edwardian era – the era, in other words, in which M. R. James (and his namesake Henry James, who wrote probably the finest ghost story of them all) flourished – is the golden era for this type of story. Why this should be, I don’t know, although I am sure literary theorists have their own hypotheses on this matter: it’s probably all to do with social and economic changes, or something equally fascinating. But whatever the reason, the majority of the creepy stories I love were written in this period. And the sheer entertainment these stories have provided over the years has been immense.

As I write, we are just a few days away from Halloween, but Halloween was never – in the UK at least – a particularly major event as I was growing up, and it still doesn’t register particularly strongly with me. Traditionally, in Britain, it was Christmas that was the time for ghost stories. There is something about the darkening winter light in these latitudes that particularly lends itself to this sort of thing. But Halloween or Christmas – what matter? Now the time of year is approaching when I can once again enjoy reading these stories on dark nights before switching off the bedside lamp.

And then, the darkness.